Song Sparrow

Bird of the Month: Song Sparrow

By Hugh Jennings

PC: Mick Thompson (Song Sparrow)

PC: Mick Thompson (Song Sparrow)

Scientific Name: Melospiza melodia

AOU Band code SOSP

This sparrow is our most widespread species and found in any low, open, weedy or brushy habitat. The SOSP most likely has the greatest variation in plumage of any North American songbird which indicates that it can readily adapt to differences in climate and food availability. In general it has a whitish breast with brown streaks and a dark central spot. The crown is reddish-brown with a gray central stripe and gray eyebrows. The white throat is bordered by dark brown marks from the base of the bill. The tail is long and rounded; the legs and feet are pinkish. The geographical variations include darker subspecies along the West coast and paler subspecies in the Southwest. In Washington state it is a common year-round resident at low to mid-elevations and can be found in all but the most arid, barren, or densely forested areas.

The males define territories of ½  to 1-1/2 acres by singing from prominent perches. The male chases the female from the time she first arrives and then reduces the amount of his singing. Courtship then involves the male diving at the female and giving a trill-like call. The song begins with a few repeated notes followed by various warbles. F. Schuyler Matthews “Field Book of Wild Birds and Their Music” (a copy is in Eastside Audubon library) devotes 14 pages to the Song Sparrow melodies. His description begins with “The Song Sparrow is the flower of his family. A musician of exceptional ability, and the possessor of a character remarkable for its cheerfulness under all conditions of weather”. The calls include a short tsip or tchep. One version of its song is described as “maids, maids, maids put on your teakettle, teakettle, teakettle”. Another, as “sweet, sweet, sweet followed by a buzzy towhee and a short, descending trill”. The SOSPs feed on the ground, eating seeds, insects and some fruit and will come to feeders with seed scattered on the ground. The nest site varies, but is usually on the ground under a clump of grass or in shrubs less than four feet off the ground, but sometimes up to 10 ft. The nest is made mostly by the female and is an open cup of weeds, grass, leaves, strips of bark lined with fine grass, rootlets and animal hair. There are usually 4, but often 3-5, greenish white eggs with dark marks. The female incubates the eggs for 12-14 days. Both parents feed the young which normally leave the nest 10-12 days after hatching